Not Las Vegas

Not Las Vegas

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Not Much of a Plan

We had not planned much of a route for this day. We maybe thought we’d stay in Las Vegas for the night. Anyway, we hadn’t booked anywhere to stay. In fact, we hadn’t tried to book anywhere, so it was going to be an adventure.

Scotty’s Castle

The books all said the most visited part of Death Valley NP is Scotty’s Castle, up on the north end, so we decided this would be our first stopping off point. We had pretty much the same breakfast as the previous day. And we bought pretty much the same lunch to take with us. We checked out of the motel and gave our home address to the receptionist because the maid had taken one of our towels and added it into the laundry.

Note to oneself – if you take your own towels on holiday, take brightly coloured ones, rather than off-white. Off-white ones look like hotel towels, so if you leave them lying around, they disappear. Probably a hotel industry business conspiracy to claw back their losses from all the British people who steal towels as a memento of their fortnight holiday in Benidorm. Enough said – one towel down and back on the road.

Scotty’s Castle wasn’t quite open when we arrived. At least, the gas station wasn’t, and this was the part we needed first. So we bought the tickets for the next available tour. This gave us 50 minutes to kill by walking around with our cameras. There was a little museum attached to the ticket office. Quite interesting stuff, but difficult to get decent-looking photos because of all the unfinished bits. OK, I know they are original features, but there is something about exposed reinforced concrete that doesn’t look good on a photo. It spoils the intended effect of the main building. Just time to fill up with gas from the now open station as well before the main event.

A Period Drama

The tour of the building was quite exceptional. Not because of the grandeur of the building, but because of the way it was done. There would be a temptation on such a thing to be entirely factual or historical in outlook, and to treat it with a kind of hushed reverence like you were on hallowed ground. Instead, the guide dropped into character as soon as we passed through the gate. The character he dropped into was that of a house worker. An odd-job man come butler who worked at the house at the time it was originally built. He painted a picture at a human level, passing on stories about the inhabitants. He described their habits, snippets of conversation he’d overheard and so on. It was all done in the present tense.

He was very good also at ignoring the modern world outside, so when he talked about the wonderful new appliances the Johnsons had put in the place, he managed to sound genuinely impressed. Obviously it was just a guy painting a picture, and much of the story is probably extrapolated from what’s known about the Johnsons and Death Valley Scotty, but it was well done, and it made an interesting trip round what was actually just a moderately sized and unfinished house in the desert.

OK Buck!

After Scotty’s Castle we headed back into the valley floor to visit Ubehebe Crater. I don’t know how you’re supposed to pronounce this, but we plumped for making funny noises like the robot on Buck Rogers. Ooh-bee-hee-bee, ooh-bee-hee-bee, OK Buck! Ubehebe is a volcanic explosion crater, caused by molten lava rising up to the surface and hitting some pockets of water. Lots of heat, when applied to water embedded in rock, makes for a big bomb. The result was several big holes.

We parked up in a stop at the foot of the trail walk around Ubehebe, and walked up a steep cinder path to the lip of Ubehebe. It was very windy, and the overall effect was like trying to run up a huge sand dune to switch off the massive hairdryer at the top. By the time we got to the top, we were a bit drained, and the single litre of water we had taken with us was running out fast. We took a few photos of the holes and scurried down the cinders back to the car for more water and air conditioning.

Lunch was about due, so as Ubehebe was a bit of a moonscape we decided instead to go and sit under the shade of the trees back at Scotty’s Castle. Very pleasant indeed.

Too Much Fighting on the Dancefloor

Someone, at the Ranger Station at Scotty’s Castle I think, said we should maybe try the ghost town of Rhyolite. It’s just off Route 95 over the Nevada border. To get there we drove out of Death Valley on the road at Scotty’s Castle, and then made our way south. As with all things in this part of the US, it was further than it looked on the map.

When we eventually got there, we were a bit disappointed. I’m not sure what we were expecting from a ghost town, but there was very little there. There were a few signs stating what the buildings were, but there were no facilities or services at all. I think our problem was that we were feeling a bit drained by the heat. We couldn’t really be bothered with walking round a ghost town in the middle of a scorching afternoon.

Vegas, anyone?

The better option seemed to be a dash down Highway 95 to Las Vegas, and try to find somewhere to spend the night. This took a little while. We’d arrived in the middle of the afternoon in need of a drink and rest. We went downtown, intending to find a reasonably priced hotel. We thought we’d just spend the one evening in Vegas wandering up the strip and just spending a night in a city rather than the country. The reality proved a bit different.

We parked up in a big lot behind one of the bigger hotels downtown. And then walked around for ages through a number of slot machine arcades trying to find the bit where they allowed you to check into hotel rooms. We found several that had rooms, but none for less than about $150 a night. Serves us right for just turning up on a Saturday afternoon without reservations.

What was remarkable, as a none gambler, was the sheer number of people who are prepared to buy a large popcorn bucket full of quarters and feed them into slot machines for hour on end, and the ultra convenience of the casinos with their food malls, bars, and upholstered stools with integral flush mechanism so that you never have to stray away from the real business of emptying those popcorn buckets. The real big rollers who play other games that cost more than 25 cents a go can get cheap rooms at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon, but not us. We didn’t want to gamble, we just wanted to spend a night of relative civilization sniggering at other people gambling.

We didn’t find what we were looking for

Bono couldn’t find what he was looking for in Las Vegas, and nor did we. He maybe wasn’t looking for a reasonably priced hotel room on a Saturday night. We were, and we failed.

So our experience of Las Vegas was not a great one. It ended much sooner than we planned, and certainly much sooner than most other people’s experience. We went to a Starbucks in the arcade on Fremont Street where Bono was wandering around with his guitar, and tried sort ourselves out. We settled on a drive down to Boulder City, and a very cool-sounding hotel.

Boulder City

Boulder City is a few miles to the south-east of Las Vegas, on the road to Hoover Dam. The Boulder Dam Hotel was originally built as part of the dam project so that various visitors of high status had a reasonable place to stay. The building is wonderful.

To me, it seemed as if someone had stolen an old colonial mansion from somewhere in The Carolinas or Georgia. This was then just dropped into the desert, with an appropriate strip of bright green grass round the outside. And off you go. This was a bit of a gamble in itself. The Moon Guide was written when the refurbishment was halfway through. That meant there was the possibility of being able to have dinner there but then go somewhere else for sleep. Not a problem in the USA, but we were lucky that the renovation had finished and the rooms were open for business.

We went through an interesting discussion with the receptionist in which she eventually persuaded us that we’d get a better deal on the room if we claimed fraudulently to be members of AAA. For our money we got a big double room. We were also warned about the wedding party in the hotel that night.

Al Fresco Dining

The restaurant proved excellent. We went al fresco and sat at a little table out on the patio in front of the lawn. At one point we got wet ankles when the sprinklers in the flower bed against the wall came on for a while. It was pleasantly cooling.

I remember being slightly disappointed over Las Vegas, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect and as someone who doesn’t gamble, I guess I should have anticipated that I’d find it tacky and depressing. We hadn’t really decided on the rest of the trip, so I think we resolved that once we’d finished our planned loop around the Grand Canyon we’d maybe come back to Vegas on the way home, and maybe on a day other than at the weekend. We didn’t think twice about it really. In the end, we never did come back, as we got sidetracked by driving into Southern California instead!

If I went back to the area I’m still not sure I’d want to go and stay in Las Vegas any longer than we did this time.


Death Valley 2002-08-23

Death Valley 2002-08-23

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Death Valley – On this day we visited Furnace Creek, Zabriskie Point, Dante’s View, Badwater Basin, Artist’s Drive, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Natural Bridge Canyon and Devil’s Golf Course, which made for a very busy day.


Death Valley 2002-08-23

Death Valley

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Somebody Open the Windows

Nothing prepares you for the heat of Death Valley National Park in August ( www.nps.gov/deva/ ). You could use a few old clichés to try to paint the picture, but basically, it’s hot. We’ve been to some warm places in our time such as the Greek Islands and Egypt, but Death Valley is hotter by several notches.

It was probably before 8am when we emerged from the room to go and hunt for breakfast, and we hadn’t bothered putting on any suncream, because we normally do this inbetween breakfast and heading out for the day. We just decided to walk over the road and go to the general store. We weren’t hungry enough for a big breakfast, and anyway the motel was likely to cost a few pennies. It was maybe 150 yards over the road but my head and arms were starting to feel distinctly burnt.

Breakfast comprised a couple of pastries and a 20oz of chilled coke. I don’t think I’ve ever had a chilled soft drink for breakfast, but somehow a hot steaming coffee didn’t feel right. We walked back to the motel somewhat quicker than we’d walked over and had breakfast on the porch. The view was pretty impressive from there. There was a huge caravan/RV park just over the road, but it was totally empty. There weren’t many other cars at the motel or on the road, and so we had a clear, unobstructed view of an expanse of desert flats, with the Panamint Range in the background, this time viewed looking North East, and lit by early morning colours.

We’re a Long Way from Home

This was the first time on the trip where I felt like we were in America. If you’re European and you go to San Francisco, you could think you were in a European city. OK, the people speak English, Spanish or Chinese, but the architecture and culture and food could be somewhere in Europe. The climate is familiar for someone from Europe’s Atlantic coast.

The same applies to Yosemite. There are trees and mountains and lakes and waterfalls, but we’ve been into the Alps a few times, and there is the same kind of scenery.

All of this familiarity goes out of the window when you get to Death Valley. There is no doubting that this is not Europe. You don’t get scenery like this in Europe. It is hot, dry, and barren, but you can see mountains with snow on the top.

To illustrate how barren it is, our pastries were suddenly the centre of attention for a substantial bird population. Most were quite small and were picking away at the crumbs we’d dropped on the floor. There was one quite large, black one which looked to me like a raven, but then I’m no ornithologist. It sat on the stone pillar of a fence around the porch and looked menacingly at us.

The plan for the day was to go for a look at the southern end of the park. There’s a lot of it, but what the heck. As ever, we started with the Visitor Centre in Furnace Creek to get the usual collection of free brochures about current conditions, walks, and so on. Furnace Creek also furnished us with by far the most expensive refuelling stop of the trip.

Badlands

We decided the plan was to head up towards Dante’s View first, and then come back down into the lower valley in the afternoon. We hadn’t discussed it, but I think we’d already come to the conclusion that this wasn’t a place for doing long hikes. Not today, anyway. Sounds like a plan.

The first stop was Zabriskie Point. There was a short walk up a hill from the car park to get up to a constructed viewpoint looking down on what can only be described as a strange landscape. It’s called badlands, I think.

Basically, it goes like this. You have a bedrock that doesn’t absorb water very well, and there isn’t much water anyway. When it does rain, it rains quickly, and in large amounts. The rain doesn’t soak in, even though the surface is bone-dry, so this means two things. Firstly, there’s no water in the ground to support plant life. Secondly, the water can’t do anything but run away, taking the top layer of soil/rock with it. This ends up looking like a large scale map of rivers and valleys, all joining into each other like a tree. But it’s all in minature, with complete valleys only a hundred or so metres long and maybe 10-20 metres deep.

Because there are no plants, you can also see the colours in the rocks. Variations in concentrations of minerals mean you get lots of colour. At Zabriskie Point, there are yellows and oranges at the bottom with a reddy-brown cap. All of this forms a nice big bowl shape, with a view out over salt pans in the lower valley and the Panamints behind. This would have been more dramatic with shadows, but you can’t have everything, and it was still pretty darn impressive.

A Bunch of Ass

Next we decided ( well, I think Kev decided, being at the wheel, and Kas didn’t try very hard to stop it ) to go off the paved road and round the Twenty Mule Canyon Road. We didn’t see that many mules, certainly not twenty of them. There was more badland scenery in similar shades to Zabriskie. Here, the road was the same colour because it had no tarmac on it. In fact, in places it was only the occasional tyre print that showed you where the road was supposed to be. The drive was OK, but I wouldn’t like to go a long distance over it. We had a couple of stops for photos, most of which show no sign of humanity at all.

A Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy

From here we continued along Highway 190 to get to the turnoff for Dante’s View, past a few bits of abandoned industry and eventually to a few switchbacks up to a car park in between two quite high peaks. From the car park you are aware that there is going to be a view. Really though, you have to get out and walk up to the edge to get the full effect. It is a pretty good effect ( by now, you can tell I’m running out of superlatives to use, so I apologize if I repeat myself ).

What you get to see from Dante’s View is this. There are the Panamint Mountains in the background, with Telescope Peak (11,050ft) at the very top. Then there’s a huge wall a few miles away, as the mountains give way to the valley. It’s probably not actually a wall, it’s more likely to be cliffs and debris fans like this side. In front of the cliffs there’s an expanse of flat land with salt pans.

From this height, it looks like a river and a couple of lakes of milk. Right beneath you is Badwater, at 287ft below sea level. Hugging the base of the slope on the near side is a little wavy black line, which turns out to be the road. Then the cliffs and debris fans lead up to your viewpoint at 5475ft above sea level. You’re basically a mile or so up above the valley floor and you can see all the way across.

Beauty in Simplicity

You’ll see our description of Grand Canyon later on, but my personal view is that where Grand Canyon is big, it is also complicated, and that maybe detracts from the beauty because you can’t really take it all in. From Dante’s View, there is a simplicity to the view. Here’s some mountains, here’s a deep valley, and here’s some more mountains. The view goes up and down the valley and all the way across, and you can see all of it. You don’t have to peak around corners or over cliffs, and you’re not searching around for the important bits, they are just all there, all visible.

You also don’t feel like you need to walk into it, because it wouldn’t improve the perspective. Personally, I could have sat there for hours and just stared at it, not really changing my viewpoint, but just absorbing it and admiring. I was also wondering what happened to the Mos Eisley Spaceport, which mysteriously appeared and then disappeared from the valley floor in the 70’s.

However, the rocks were too hot to sit, and it was getting on towards lunchtime. So we had a good old gawp for an hour or so, and took some big panorama photos. Kas took the obligatory photos of me taking photos, with a rather good view in the background.

Lunch O’Clock

From Dante’s View back down into the valley, and then down to Ashford Mill took a while, but we decided this was the way to go. This meant we had a convenient lunch break before starting again for the afternoon, and it also meant that when we came back up the valley we’d be pointing the right way for the Artist’s Drive. I’m not quite sure what we were expecting at Ashford Mill but there wasn’t a lot. The main feature to remark upon was the picnic tables in the car park.

Imagine this, it’s about 120 degrees outside, the sun is blazing down and you fancy sitting outside for a spot of lunch. OK, I can understand why there is no shade, because that would probably mean that the tables were visible from much further afield. But neither of us could really understand the logic behind them being made of aluminium. In this heat, they may as well have thrown broken glass and six-inch nails on the top and electrified them. I guess they’re more pleasant in the winter, or maybe we should have taken our big tartan blanket with us to sit on. All British cars come pre-fitted with an 8ft square tartan woollen blanket, just in case.

So we discovered that the rear door of the RAV4 opens really wide to reveal a carpeted floor at just the right height and just the right width for two bums. Sorry – two fannies if your American. You wouldn’t want two bums sitting in the back of your car. Then we had a bit of a walk around, found a few ruined bits of building and a very arty looking bush in the middle of a stony wasteland, and decided enough was enough. Time for more air conditioning.

Badwater

From here, we pretty much went to all the stop-offs on the road back from Ashford Mill to Stovepipe Wells, via Furnace Creek. First up is Badwater. There’s a little pool of water that you wouldn’t want to drink unless you want to lose weight quickly. There’s also what looks like a road made of salt disappearing into the distance, and a sign announcing where you are. And just how far under the surface you’d be if the sea ever found a way in. Thankfully, it didn’t while we were there. Maybe it’s still going round the one-way system in Yosemite.

The Natural Bridge

Next came the Natural Bridge, and Kev’s mini-whinge to Kas, because she was getting to do all the driving off tarmac. There’s a side road that leads up one of the debris fans a little bit, and a dusty car park at the end. From here you walk up what must occasionally be a riverbed, but not today. Kas was feeling a bit knackered, so she decided to sit on a rock in the shade while Kev trudged up another 6-700 yards to find the actual bridge. As its name suggests, it’s a rock bridge over the top of the valley. There weren’t any cars on the top, so it probably isn’t a road bridge. Anyway, the air in the canyon was very oppressive and the walls vertical, so the whole experience was a bit claustrophobic. Do a few photos, swig some more lukewarm water, and back to the car.

The Devil’s Golf Course

Next up was the Devil’s Golf Course. This is an area of razor sharp pinnacles of salt crystals rising up from the valley floor. If the Devil really plays golf here I bet he loses a lot of balls. It’s good for photos though.

Artist’s Drive

Then came Artist’s Drive, which branches to the east side of the paved road for a few miles and gives you a close up view of the various colours in the rocks and volcanic ash of the valley side caused by the different minerals in the rock. There’s green, purple, orange, red, yellow, brown, white, grey and a few other bits. Most of the colours are arranged in layers at varying angles, and then with various intrusions of different colours thrown in for good measure. I’m not sure what school the artist belonged to, but it was probably one of the more abstract, modern ones.

This took us past Furnace Creek, and then on to Salt Creek interpretative trail. There were some salty flats, with interesting hexagonal patterns. It was very good for abstract, close up photos, but there’s not much else to say really.

Be Careful Out There

And finally for this day, probably the least clever part of the whole holiday. Kas wanted to wander into the sand dunes for photos, and Kev didn’t, due to a headache coming on. So rather than both go, or both stay, Kas went for a walk and Kev stayed in the car. This may not seem too bad, especially seeing as Kas had a hat and was carrying water, and at the time neither of us thought about it at all.

A couple of weeks later, there was a news article on the TV about a guy from somewhere in the Midwest who went for a walk into the sand dunes from Stovepipe Wells with his wife one morning. He was walking faster than her, and got some way ahead. The woman stopped for a rest and let her husband go on. He had a hat, long sleeves, sun cream and water. He wasn’t in bad health or unfit, and he was about 40. That’s just two years older than Kev was at the time.

After a couple of hours waiting his wife gave up and assumed something was wrong. She walked the couple of miles or so back to Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station to find help. It took 24 hours to find him and he died in hospital the day afterwards. So I guess the moral of that tale is that the best survival aid is to make sure someone else is with you at all times, just in case. Thankfully Kas made it back to the car. Neither of us realized the danger at the time, so we didn’t get upset about it either.

Cooling Down

By this time we were both a bit the worse for wear, so we decided to go home and chill out. This involved showers, and for the first time on the trip, a dunk in the motel swimming pool. It was outdoors, and getting dark again by the time we got there, but it was still uncomfortably warm around the pool. Cooling in it, but warming out of it. Most of the people we saw in the motel the previous night seemed to be doing the same thing. In fact, I think there were eight people there. Apart from the Visitor Centre at Furnace Creek it was the most people we had seen in the same place all day.

After the previous night’s disappointing meal and because we didn’t fancy anything heavy for dinner, we decided to just go to the bar for cold beer and snacks. Nachos, I think. They were freshly nach-ed, warm and substantial. And the beer was cold and wet. ‘Nuff said.


Yosemite 2002-08-22

Yosemite 2002-08-22

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A bit more of Yosemite National Park – the Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows.

The Devils Postpile National Monument.


Yosemite 2002-08-22

Up, Over & Down

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Time for Some Driving

Another substantial breakfast, more packed lunch from the general store and hump the bags into the RAV4. Today was the day to drive up, over and down the great divide formed by the Sierra Nevada. This is a trip which can’t be done in the winter, or at least can’t be done much of the time. The road over the top gets a bit buried in snow. Thankfully it was August when we were there, so no snow.

One Final Lap

It’s always worth one final drive round the Yosemite Valley one-way system, so we decided to do just that on our way out. This time, we stopped at about four or five pull-outs to take some photos of the meadows and surrounding cliffs. At the bottom end of the valley there are some good shots of El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks. As discussed earlier, weren’t any waterfalls flowing at this end of the valley, but never mind, it’s still pretty beautiful.

It also proved to be a great area for engaging in conversation with others there to enjoy the scenery. There was a father/son combination over from somewhere in Michigan, I think, and I think it took them longer to get there than it did us. But, on a lovely sunny, bright, warm morning like this, you could see why someone would drive a few thousand miles.

Totally Over the Top

Time was pushing on, and we hadn’t quite planned where we were going or what we planned to do for the rest of the day. We decided to complete the valley loop and head off over the Tioga Road to see what the high sierra was like. The answer proved to be equally beautiful, but a bit less craggy. There are hills on the top. They are big by English standards, but just bumps in comparison to the main valley. I guess it gives some insight into what the terrain was like before the glaciers arrived. Maybe. And there are lakes, streams, trees, and some bears.

We managed to miss all the bears, maybe because we didn’t leave our pic-a-nic baskets in the car. First stop was brief wander round and photography session at the side of Tenaya Lake. It was still bright and sunny, but the chill on the breeze reminded us that it’s a long way up. There were a couple of little beaches at the lakeside and some really arty bits of driftwood around the place, so some fine opportunities to experiment with depth of field on the cameras.

Tuolumne Meadows

We then moved on to Tuolumne Meadows with the intention of taking the circular walk around Lembert Dome. When we got there, though, it looked a bit bigger than we thought it might, and we decided that lunch was more urgent. So we grabbed our Pringles, bread rolls and packed ham and went for a stroll towards a stream from a car park near the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Centre. We managed to find a tremendous spot alongside a little stream babbling over an area of slick rock, with a couple of little falls. There were a couple of other people there, but I guess they’ve got a right to enjoy the countryside as well. We were getting sunburnt, but the breeze was still there to remind you of the altitude.

Mammoth Mountain

Lunch finished and we had decided on our objective for the day. We’ll drive up to Mammoth Ski Resort for a quick look at the interestingly named Devil’s Postpile National Monument ( www.nps.gov/depo/ ). So we drove out of Yosemite on the eastern side, with some top views over Mono Lake and the vast expanse of NevadaMammoth is a half-hour or south and then back up towards the mountains. The road up proved interesting, and we ended up at the north end of the town and turned directly uphill towards the ski base station.

Thankfully this is where we needed to be, but the presence of the National Monument up there didn’t seem to be well advertised. Neither were the parking arrangements. I think we passed ( and didn’t read ) a sign telling us to park up at the ski base station and catch a bus. As we’d missed that, we just followed the road to the top of a hill. Eventually we reached a station where we were told we shouldn’t have bought the car here – buses only.

Basalt

OK, back down the hill and park up miles from the bus stop, and then stand in line waiting for a bus. They didn’t seem to be that frequent, because there isn’t much room for turning buses round in the valley behind the ski area. We waited about 30 minutes and got a bit cold. We were both just dressed in shorts and t-shirt. But we eventually got onto a bus and followed it down the valley to the drop-off for the Postpile.

The Postpile is a wall of crystalline basalt columns in hexagonal shapes, which are gradually falling away with erosion. For those of you who’ve been to Northern Ireland, the shapes are a bit like the Giant’s Causeway. Except here the sides are exposed, rather than the tops. There’s a scree slope of hexagonal sectioned lumps around the base and a few interesting bits where the heat and pressure forced the columns off the vertical. It proved to be another top site for testing depth of field, trying to get both rubble and posts in focus at the same time.

What are we Doing Tonight?

By this time, it was getting a little late, and we had yet to decide where we wanted to spend the night. So we got back to the ski station and went for an ice cream and some planning. We decided that there wasn’t much of interest in between here and the next big objective, Death Valley. We also decided that Death Valley was big, so a) we wanted to stay in it and b) we wanted to get there on this day.

So, out came the Moon Guide for Southern California to get some phone numbers. And we bought a phonecard so we could make use of the payphones. The Furnace Creek Inn was a bit expensive, so we decided on the Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel. The booking conversation went something like this:

“Do we need to give you a credit card number to reserve the room?” said I.

“No sir, we’ve got 50 rooms and only 5 bookings. We’re not going to be full tonight.”

“OK, we’ll take the room, and we might be a bit late, because we’re still at Mammoth Mountain.”

So we made a quick hike back to the car, drove through central Mammoth Lakes for fuel. Then turned south for the next adventure. Judging by the scale of the map, it was going to be quite late by the time we got there.

From Glaciers to Desert

The drive down to Lone Pine is a bit dull. A series of straight stretches of road with small agricultural towns which, by European standards, are a long way from anywhere. Then you turn east towards Death Valley, and you start to realize why you’re making the effort.

The road in from this side is a bit winding as you enter the park and cross over the Panamint Range into the main valley. By this time it was getting late, and the headlights were on. The sun was behind us, so we got low level illumination of the area we were driving into. Our car was casting a long shadow in front of us, and eventually no shadow at all. The colours were very interesting with hues of red, orange and purple. I don’t know whether this was the rocks, or the light, or both, but whatever it was it was gorgeous.

A One Horse Town

Stovepipe Wells is a tiny settlement, consisting of only about six buildings. Four of these belong to the only lodgings in town. It was dark and we were really hungry, so we decided to check in quickly, get into our room. And then we went to see what the motel had to offer by way of food. The restaurant just had an all-you-can-eat buffet, which sounded like a good idea. However, we were a bit late and some of the dishes were finished for the night. Others didn’t look very appetizing. We both took a plates of something containing chicken and rice. It turned out to be quite expensive as well. I guess when your nearest competition is 40 miles away and your nearest convenience store isn’t very convenient at all you can get away with more or less anything. At least the beer was cold and wet.

There were a few others in the restaurant room and they all seemed to be Europeans. It must be off-season for the locals.

Another long day, and time for a long snooze.


Yosemite 2002-08-21

Yosemite 2002-08-21

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Our first American National Park of the trip. It’s a good place to start.


Yosemite 2002-08-21

Yosemite

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Wake Up, It’s a Beautiful Morning

The sun was shining in Yosemite Valley and the morning was fresh and new. We had begun the habit of getting up pretty early. This meant we enjoyed some of the best weather. It was also the most peaceful time of day, giving us the scope for some long, action-packed days. Breakfast was adequate and substantial. Next stop was the general store at the hotel. We needed to restock the water supply and acquire the raw material for a packed lunch. How very English – sandwiches, Pringles and soft drinks. And the gas station in El Portal was open, so now we’ve enough juice to venture to most parts of the park.

Vernal Fall

After a number of days of relative inactivity by our standards, the first excursion of the morning just had to include some walking. So after parking up in Yosemite Village we took the shuttle bus up to the top end of the valley and began the moderately strenuous hike up to Vernal Fall. This one still had some water coming over it, unlike Yosemite and Bridalveil. August is a little late in the season for big waterfalls in Yosemite, but Vernal Fall was nevertheless impressive, as the water flow was sufficient to cause a full double rainbow at the foot.

The granite plateau above had a fairly small looking stream at the top. Presumably there’s more water in the spring. Anyway, the water just sort of falls over the edge. Further up the same trail you can continue on to Nevada Fall, and also the hike up the back of Half Dome. However, if you want to get up there and back in one day you need to set off seriously early. When I said we got up early, it wasn’t THAT early.

Planning

By the time we got back and did some planning over our lunch and decided that today would be the best day for going to see some big trees. We hadn’t really decided where we were headed the following day except that we wanted to exit the park over the Tioga Road. This would be a long day if combined with going to Mariposa Grove. So trees today, gone tomorrow.

We decided on the tram tour rather than walking around Mariposa. We managed to just about arrive in time for the last trip of the day. The Grove is at the south end of Yosemite, so it took a while to get there.

The driver and tour guide sounded like he had spent a lifetime chewing razor blades and drinking sulphuric acid. Gruff would be an understatement. Rougher than a roofer’s glove is closer to the mark. He also had a bizarre turn of phrase and outlook on life. He seemed to be a man who was entirely comfortable with his place on the planet, whichever planet that was. Meanwhile, back at the tram tour, we saw some big trees, and some more big trees. A couple of times we stopped to look at some very big trees.

Big Trees

Some of the specimens in this grove are staggering in size. There is the famous one that once appeared in the Guinness Book of Records because someone put a road through the middle just so he could get a photo, completely neglecting the fact that this would kill the tree. What was it the guy said about sequoias? They have very few natural causes of death. Fire just scorches the lower parts and opens up the cones so that new ones start growing. Snow doesn’t hurt, because lets face it, big ones have their very own snow line at the top for most of the year. Small animals live in or around the things and large animals give up and decide that they’re just too big. And they grow from seeds which are smaller than a gnat’s nadgers.

Their only real natural cause of death is boredom. Trees have a high boredom threshold so a good one will last a few millennia, but eventually they kind of just drop off to sleep and fall over. After this their roots can no longer get up and go to the shops to buy food, so they starve. But you wouldn’t want to try to dig a grave for one, so they just lie on the ground for another few millennia while a whole forest ecosystem flourishes around the abandoned trunk.

Humans, huh?

If only humans had found it more difficult to get rid of them, then there might be a few more close to the Yosemite Valley. Sadly, however, humans have wiped out most of them in ultimately fruitless attempts to find a commercial use, before finally realizing that their greatest use is actually to make us feel inadequate. Mariposa Grove is a fairly long trip out from Yosemite Valley, but the trip is well worth it just for the views from the Wawona Road looking down to the western slopes of the sierra, and the size of the trees in the grove once you get there.

A Taste of Home

Back home at the hotel saw us munching away in the bar and sampling what to us was a bit of a novelty beer – Newcastle Brown Ale out of a barrel. This is only the second time I’ve seen it drawn from a barrel, and the other time was 8 years earlier in Flagstaff, Arizona. In England, even in Newcastle, it normally comes in a pint-sized bottle with a half pint-sized glass. I mean, it’s no longer brewed anywhere near its hometown, but it’s still rare to see it served from barrels. The clear glass pint-sized bottle is the delivery mechanism of choice. The brewery used to produce special double-sized beer mats so you can keep your glass and bottle close together.

I seem to remember a fairly long discussion with the barmaid about nothing in particular, and then retiring to bed with the happy glow of people who drank more beer than was strictly necessary. Let’s get some sleep, tomorrow we’re off exploring again.


Yosemite 2002-08-20

Yosemite 2002-08-20

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It’s not far out of the big city to reach one of the most beautiful places on Earth.


Yosemite 2002-08-20

Born to be Wild

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Get Your Motor Runnin’

And so arrived the day when we would leave the big city and head for the countryside. Wouldn’t you just know it, the sun was out. Not a cloud in the sky and getting warm already. Typical! I guess that makes it perfect weather to head out on the highway, looking for adventure and whatever comes our way. We were born to be wild! Have I milked the 1969 motorcycle counter-culture thing sufficiently yet?

We started our day with more homemade granola and chocolate muffins at the place on the corner of Powell and Sutter and prepared for the always entertaining game of collecting the rental car. The usual game is to guess what upgrades the guy is going to try to sell you. In this case, Holiday Autos ( www.holidayautos.co.uk ) had got us a deal with Hertz to collect from their downtown office, which was conveniently just up the road from the hotel.

When the nice man from Hertz realized we had already bought all the possible options for upgraded insurance he was left with no choice but to try to sell us a bigger car. His main line of argument was that we’d never get the luggage in the car we’d booked. So he suggested we upgrade from a standard to full-size saloon/sedan. This didn’t seem to give us any advantage. The next option was a 4×4 for the same price as the full-size sedan. Oh, go on then, just this once. At about $5 a day extra it’s hardly worth even talking about it.

Head Out on the Highway

And behold, a nice new Toyota RAV4 was ours, with unlimited mileage and insurance against everything except abduction by aliens. One downside – it had only just come back in, so they cleaned it but hadn’t filled up with fuel. In fact, the gauge was so low that the engine nearly cut out going up hills. Thankfully, however, both the hotel ( and luggage ) and the freeway were downhill, as was the closest available gas station as advised by the valet at the Westin.

So came the first of very many stops at gas stations, to fill up with motion lotion and stock up on essential freeway consumables like Pringles and Coke. We might have got something healthy like sandwiches as well, but those have been purged from the memory. Just round the corner was the access ramp up to I-80, and Kas’s first experience of my driving in the USA. Over the Bay Bridge and in to Oakland, a few bits of shuffling and I-580 beckoned us away from the suburbs and into farming country.

No time to linger though, because we had an urgent appointment with the National Park Service ( www.nps.gov ), and more specifically with Yosemite ( www.nps.gov/yose ), home of the famous cartoon character called Sam, and life’s work for the guy who invented landscape photography, Ansel Adams. It was a slow ride up Highway 120 into the park, followed by a brief stop at the entrance gate to buy our NPS annual pass – a great idea for this kind of holiday, as one fee gets you into any NPS site, for any number of times for a whole year after the date of issue. And you can buy them at the entrance station to Yosemite. Formalities complete, so bring on the landscapes!

Looking for Adventure

Nothing prepares you for the beauty you encounter as you enter the Yosemite Valley, not even the helpful NPS website ( www.nps.gov/yose/ ). Sheer granite cliffs rise up 4000 feet from the green meadows on the valley floor. Waterfalls cascade over various precipitous drops. It’s just Spectacular with a capital S. If we had the cash we would jack it all in and move up here. We can fully understand why Ansel Adams never tired of the place.

However, you do get plenty of opportunity to look at the scenery as you drive in seemingly endless loops and sub-loops around the one-way system on the valley floor. Watch the signs folks, or you end up on a 10-mile loop to get back to somewhere which is 200 yards behind you. Either that or just plan your route in advance.

First stop, late lunch and a wander around Yosemite Village. Eventually, we decided that the next priority was to find somewhere to sleep for the night. In the days before mobile phones that meant using the free phones in the Park HQ. We stood in line behind a guy doing the same thing. Our job was made much easier when he told us he had already called this one, this one, this one and this other one, and all are full. But he got a room at the Cedar Lodge just down the road in El Portal. That sounded good to us, we’ll have some of that, thank you very much. The price seemed fine and it looked close by, so two nights accommodation a mere 20 minutes away were ours.

Enough Already with the Steppenwolf

This left us with a good 3-4 hours of decent, useable time in the afternoon. Neither of us was really dressed for hiking, and we hadn’t had time to read the free papers that the NPS provide, so we deemed hiking to be off the agenda today and headed off around the one-way system to find the road up to Glacier Point. From here, you can see a good proportion of the valley floor, although it is a long way down, and you also get the much-photographed eye-level view over to Half Dome. As its name suggests, it’s a mountain that was dome-shaped until the glacier in the valley cut half of it away, leaving half a dome and one humungous sheer cliff face.

I Like Smoke ‘n’ Lightning

OK, I lied. I’m never one to give up a running theme.

A Park Ranger on the top of Glacier was doing free 10 minute talks on the background of the park. It’s a great service that the NPS provides, and really helps to put the view into context. One aspect this ranger covered was fire. We had noticed on our drives through that there are some apparently quite large areas that are burnt. Some of these were caused by natural lightning strikes. Some were started deliberately by the Rangers. They’ve changed policy recently from protection at all costs ( which results in lots of tinder-dry detritus on the forest floor ) to an active policy of simulating what nature would do. That includes “controlled burns”, the purpose of which is to remove all that flammable material in a controlled way rather than the more dangerous and damaging uncontrolled way.

Controlled burns also mean less possibility of severe damage being caused by inconsiderate oiks. People who insist on discarding cigarette butts and glass bottles into the bone dry undergrowth. Fire is natural, and the rangers are now trying to manage it so that they do more good than bad. For instance, did you realize that the tiny seeds of the sequoia need fire to initiate the germination process?

Cruisin’ for a Snoozin’

There was still a bit of time left before wanting to go to the hotel, so we decided to try a short hike around and up to the top of Sentinel Dome, slightly back down the Glacier Point road. This proved to be a large circle, with a steep section at the end, and then a staggering view. A thoroughly fine place to sit with your loved one as the sun dips over the back of the High Sierra. Shame it was slightly on the cool side, but then you are a long way up. There is a very arty dead tree on the top which proved ideal for silhouette photos.

And so it became dusky, and we decided it was a good time to find our hotel. Down to El Portal, passing the gas station, which was now closed for the night, and on to our hotel. It’s a traditional American motel style, with a number of two-storey blocks and multiple parking areas. One block for check-in, one for restaurants/bars, and several for accommodation. The room was pretty good, and after a quick clean up we decided food is very much on the cards.

The hotel had a kind of Mexican café, a bar serving a selection of other kinds of food. The breakfast room was completely separate and looked quite posh. We tried the Mexican café. It was the first of many Mexican meals on the trip. We enjoyed some good, very fresh enchiladas and a couple of beers, which were cold and wet. We were, by now, a bit knackered though, so the temptations of the bar were skipped in favour of bed.


San Francisco 2002-08-19

San Francisco 2002-08-19

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It’s apparently very difficult to escape from Alcatraz.